‘We need leadership’: Alistair Carns on leaving the military to become a Labour minister

We need leadership Alistair Carns on leaving the military to become a Labour minister
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Alistair Carns’s decision to leave the Royal Marines after 24 years’ service to stand for Labour came as a huge surprise. The colonel, who won the Military Cross in Afghanistan, was widely viewed as someone who would rise very high in the armed forces.

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Now, five days after being elected in Birmingham Selly Oak he has been appointed veterans’ minister. He was one of 13 former services personnel voted in as new Labour MPs, something that does no harm to Keir Starmer’s attempts to portray his party as one that can be trusted with the defence of the realm.

Carns, who joined the Royal Marines at 19, was due to be promoted to brigadier last month, which at the age of 44 would have made him among the youngest in that rank. He has served in every major conflict this country has been engaged in for the last two dozen years.

Much of Carns’s service history – 14 of his 24 years – cannot be made public for security reasons. He won his Military Cross during a six-month tour that began at the end of 2010. Those of us who reported from Afghanistan remember the fierce, sustained violence of this period as the Taliban made increasing use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and lethal ambushes.

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But it was during his last posting in a conflict zone that Carns began to think hard about how he could best address the challenges Britain faces in an increasingly dangerous world. The answer, he decided, was to enter politics.

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Carns says he decided to stand because ‘change is best delivered via the ballot box’
Carns says he decided to stand because ‘change is best delivered via the ballot box’ (Alistair Carns)

“We are seeing a completely different form of warfare. We are seeing, for example, the use of hundreds, thousands of drones, drones destroying battle fleets. How many drones have we got in the army? How many drones are in the navy? What lessons are we learning? Are we moving fast enough to keep up with the character of conflict, and if we go to war tomorrow, are we ready?” Carns says.

“We need leadership, and at the moment, Keir Starmer, without a shadow of a doubt, is the person who can provide it. One of the biggest points for me is Labour’s reinvestment in national security being at the centre of the manifesto, and the simple reason is that you can’t have a growing and secure economy without national security in these dangerous times. These [matters] are intrinsically linked, as is our foreign policy. Labour governments have consistently funded defence more than the Conservatives.

“I have worked for three defence secretaries in the national security structure, and I feel this gives me the ability to put plans into practice.”

Starmer has pledged to keep Trident as part of a “nuclear deterrent triple lock”; to place Nato at the centre of military strategy; to continue to provide Ukraine with armed support; and to boost defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP once the economy allows. Labour says this shows how far the party has moved on from the time of Jeremy Corbyn, who opposed maintaining Trident and was frequently critical of Nato.

The new PM is currently in Washington for a key Nato summit with world leaders, where the defence of Ukraine will top the agenda.

There was widespread surprise among Carns’s colleagues when he decided to leave the military and stand for Labour.

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“My phone didn’t stop ringing. I had a pretty interesting life in the forces, and I had never strongly expressed my political views, because, of course, we are meant to be apolitical while serving,” he says. “My view is that the military is all about public service, and I want to extend that to politics, a broader church. When you look at politics, it’s ‘Where do you think you can deliver the most change?’ The reality is, change is best delivered via the ballot box.

“There are vital social issues to be addressed, as well. There are people out there who are struggling, having to depend on food banks and food pantries, families who really can’t feed themselves; things are really, really bad for many, many people.”

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Carns, who won the Military Cross in Afghanistan, was widely viewed as someone who would rise very high in the armed forces
Carns, who won the Military Cross in Afghanistan, was widely viewed as someone who would rise very high in the armed forces (Alistair Carns)

Carns was born and raised in Aberdeen. Both his parents worked in the oil industry before they lost their jobs.

“I come from a relatively humble background. I joined the marines at the lowest rank, and the military gave me an opportunity to do what I did. I really feel we need to give everyone in this nation of ours an equal opportunity to realise their ambition,” he stresses.

“There is a definitely an increasing divide between those who have the opportunity and those who don’t. I believe Labour is the party that can try and achieve that. And there is no reason why one can’t try as much as possible to end social deprivation, and also remain strong on national security.”

Defence was one of the main topics of the Tory manifesto during the election campaign, and the Conservatives tried to portray Labour as weak on protecting the country. Rishi Sunak warned that a Labour victory would increase the threat to the UK. Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Liam Fox claimed that Starmer was a threat to national security because he had served in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet.

But things kept going wrong for the government. In a Tory campaign that was a gift that kept on giving to the opposition, the then prime minister skipped the D-Day commemoration at Omaha Beach attended by veterans and world leaders. He apologised for his “mistake”, but senior military leaders spoke witheringly in private about the lack of judgement on display.

Meanwhile, Sunak continued to promote one of his flagship proposals – the return of conscription. He proposed, in a television interview, that young people could have their driving licences suspended, or have access to loans restricted, if they refused to take part in national service.

When the head of the army, Patrick Sanders, floated the idea of national service in January, it was dismissed by Downing Street. Two days before the policy announcement, then defence minister Andrew Murrison said there were no plans for national service in “any form” because it would do more harm than good. Richard Dannatt, the former head of the army, dismissed the conscription plan as “ electoral opportunism”. Alan West, the former head of the Royal Navy (and also a former Labour minister), called the scheme “bonkers”.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (left) and shadow defence secretary John Healey meet with some of the 14 former military personnel Labour selected to fight the general election, during a visit to the Fusilier Museum in Bury, Greater Manchester. Thirteen were elected
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (left) and shadow defence secretary John Healey meet with some of the 14 former military personnel Labour selected to fight the general election, during a visit to the Fusilier Museum in Bury, Greater Manchester. Thirteen were elected (PA)

A serving senior officer in the army said: “It used to be said that the Church of England was the Conservative Party at prayer. Well, that went a long time ago. And the view that the military will all vote for the Conservatives is also a thing of a very hierarchical past.

“Ever since David Cameron in 2010, we’ve had successive Conservative governments cutting the defence budget while talking up defence. We’ve had almost half a dozen defence secretaries in the last six years, one of whom [Ben Wallace] pointed out that defence had been hollowed out. We’ve got Tory MPs who want Nigel Farage in their party, a man who blames Nato for Putin invading Ukraine. That’s where we are.”

Carns added: “Of course, what Farage said has been noticed [in the forces]. It is a complete misinterpretation of what is happening, and also the history between Russia and Ukraine. People I’ve spoken to on the doorstep want to stand by Ukraine. And that is Labour policy.”

Pre 4 July, Labour had a handful of ex-military MPs, including Dan Jarvis, a former Parachute Regiment officer who has served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo and Sierra Leone. Before it was decimated at the ballot box, the Conservatives had around 40 ex-forces MPs, both regular and TA – now it has just 17.

* An original version of this interview was published on June 26



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